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Freakonomics, blogging and bad chicken


If you haven't read Freakonomics, I urge you, in the strongest possible terms, to grab a copy this weekend. (Should you find yourself unwilling to plunk down $17.13 on my recommendation alone, then read this review of it by my friend Dean Barnett—the artist formerly known as James Frederick Dwight.)

Suffice it to say that if they taught economics this way in college, everyone would major in it. Reading Freakonomics is sort  of like watching "Numb3rs," except that co-authors Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner actually take the trouble to explain the math.

One of the ancillary benefits of the book's surprising success—and perhaps one reason for it—is that the authors have created a blog that's every bit the intellectual equal of this one—and a hell of a lot funnier. Let's hope they keep it up even after Freakonomics slips off The New York Times bestseller list.

A recent post by Stephen J. Dubner will serve as a case in point: "Why pay $36.09 for rancid chicken?"

He tells a tale we've all experienced—inexpressibly bad restaurant food and an insufficiently apologetic waitstaff.

My chicken, when it arrived, didn't look good but I took a bite. It was so rancid I had to spit it out into a napkin. Absolutely disgusting gagging rotten rancid. I summoned the waitress, a young and pretty redhead, who made a suitably horrified expression, then took the food away and brought back a menu.

The manager appeared. She was older than the waitress, with long dark hair and a French accent. She apologized, said the chefs were checking out the dish now, trying to determine if perhaps the herbs or the butter had caused the problem.

I don't think so, I told her. I think your chicken is rotten. I cook a lot of chicken, I said, and I know what rotten chicken smells like. Trilby [Dubner's dining companion] agreed: you could smell this plate across the table, probably across the restaurant.

The manager was reluctant to concede ….

And thereby hangs the real tale, as Dubner spins it into an exercise in applied game theory.

Just then the waitress brought the check. It was for $31.09. Perhaps out of shyness, or haste, or—most likely—a desire to not appear cheap (when it comes to money, things are never simple), I blurted out Option 2: Please see what the manager "can do about the check." The waitress replied, smiling, that we had already been given the two glasses of wine for free. To me in particular this felt like slim recompense, since it was Trilby who had drunk the wine while it was I who still radiated with the flavor of rancid chicken. But the waitress, still smiling, duly took the check and headed toward the manager. She zipped right over, also smiling.

"Considering what happened with the chicken," I said, "I wonder what you can do about the check."

"We didn't charge you for the wines," she said, with great kindness, as if she were a surgeon who had thought she would have to remove both my kidneys but found instead that she had only had to remove one.

"Is that the best that you're prepared to offer me?" I said ….

She looked at me intently, still friendly. Here she was making a calculation, preparing to make the sort of slight gamble that is both financial and psychological, the sort of gamble that each of us makes every day. She was about to gamble that I was not the kind of person who would make a scene. After all, I had been friendly throughout our dilemma, never raising my voice or even uttering the words "vomit" or "rancid" aloud. And she plainly thought this behavior would continue. She was gambling that I wouldn't throw back my chair and holler, that I wouldn't stand outside the restaurant telling prospective customers that I'd gagged on my chicken, that the whole lot was rancid, that the chefs either must have smelled it and thought they could get away with it, or, if they hadn't smelled it, were so detached from their job that who knows what else—a spoon, a sliver of thumb, a dollop of disinfectant—might find its way into the next meal. And so, making this gamble, she said "Yes": as in Yes, that is the best that she was prepared to offer me. "All right," I said, and she walked away. I left a $5 tip—no sense penalizing the poor waitress, right?—walked outside and put Trilby in a cab. The manager had gambled that I wouldn't cause trouble, and she was right.

Until now.

The restaurant, should you care to note, is called French Roast, and is on the northeast corner of 85th and Broadway, in Manhattan.

Last I checked, the roast chicken was still on the menu. Bon appetit.

Game, set and match, Dubner.

The Prisoner's Dilemma was never half as amusing as this.

Buy the book. Bookmark the blog. And don't forget to enter the t-shirt contest.

You could be a winner.

Posted by Rodger on May 13, 2005 at 10:12 AM | Permalink


Reminds me of a restaurant here in PDX. Two diners got into an argument with the waitress. The diners explicitly told her no onions and wanted the food sent back. She swore up and down that was not what was said and refused. The diners called for the manager, and subsequently, the manager took the word of the waitress. The diners paid. As the diners walked outside past the restaurant windows, there stood all the wait staff and the manager giving the diners the finger. I know these diners. They are good people. The restaurant closed one month later.
Mover Mike

Posted by: Mike | May 15, 2005 3:18:11 PM

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